TRENTON City police officer Derek Simpson made a startling discovery in the glove compartment of councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilsons vehicle earlier this year a silver flask.
Finding a flask often used to store alcohol may have raised another officers suspicion that Caldwell-Wilson could have been under the influence during a Feb. 2 two-vehicle crash along Route 129 in the capital city.
Not only did he not mention the flask in a report that he filed with findings of the crash investigation, but body-worn camera footage that The Trentonianhad to sue to uncover showed Simpson purposely hiding the flask from being captured on another officers body-worn camera.
Simpson found the flask while securing Caldwell-Wilsons personal belongings and searching the glove box for her insurance and registration.
The video later captured Simpson, a 21-year veteran, calling over Trenton cop Anthony Cariola to show him what he uncovered in Caldwell-Wilsons car.
Turn that way, Simpson told Cariola, who was also outfitted with a body-worn camera.
Once Cariola positioned his body camera away from his colleague, Simpson showed him the flask.
Cariola appeared surprised but did not utter a word before walking off.
Screengrab of bodycam footage shows a Trenton police officer showing a flask to another officer that he found in the car of Trenton Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson after she was involved in a crash.
Apparently, Simpson who was standing behind his patrol cruiser door was unaware that he did not hold the flask high enough out of view that it couldnt be seen on his own body-worn camera.
Simpsons actions that day prompted an internal affairs investigation.
A spokeswoman confirmed the matter was referred over to the Mercer County Prosecutors Office for possible criminal prosecution but TPD was advised to handle the matter administratively.
Trenton Police spokesman Lt. Jason Kmiec said the IA investigation into Simpson is still pending.
Simpsons actions raised questions for police and legal experts who wondered about his motivations for hiding the flask.
Was it being hidden because you guys were thinking of taking other law enforcement actions but because she was a councilperson, you decided not to? What would be the possible need to try to hide something? That would have my Spidey sense up, said Robert Bianchi, a criminal defense attorney and former Morris County prosecutor. I find that suspicious.
Richard Rivera, a former cop and police accountability expert, said Simpsons actions smelled of a cover-up.
The seemingly simple car-crash investigation is now being viewed through the lens of a raging national debate about police brutality and misconduct, prompted by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
A city councilman has alleged that Trenton cops attempted to cover up for Caldwell-Wilson, the North Ward representative who is in her third term on the legislative body.
Jerell Blakeley said he tried learning, months ago, about the circumstances of the crash involving Caldwell-Wilson.
He filed a public records request but said he was stymied in his efforts to uncover the truth by several high-level members of Mayor Reed Guscioras administration.
He refused to provide names of those who he claimed dissuaded him from pursuing the matter.
Gusciora said he "absolutely" did not dissuade anyone from getting the records. His chief of staff Yoshi Manale also did not recall trying to influence Blakeley to drop the matter.
Alarmed upon learning about the flask and Simpsons actions, Blakeley credited the newspaper for continuing to dig into the crash andcalled for the case to be re-examined by an independent investigator.
This stinks to high heaven, he said.
For Caldwell-Wilson, who was hospitalized for a few days with a serious head injury but has since recovered, its a painful chapter that she is eager to put behind her.
In an interview this week, Caldwell-Wilson acknowledged paying the fines after being ticketed once it was determined that she was at fault for the crash.
She was not cited for having the flask in her vehicle, which she could have been under New Jerseys open container law, and denied having a sip of alcohol at any point before the crash.
It was in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday, for crying out loud, she said.
She claimed the flask which she planned to gift to a friend who she wouldn't name never contained alcohol and was stored in the glove box for more than a year.
Why are you making a big deal about this? It was empty. It had never been used. They could do forensics on it, and it never had any alcohol in it ever, Caldwell-Wilson said.
The crash happened around 4:15 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, a day when many spectators knock back a few cold ones while taking in the big game.
According to Nielsen, in 2019, Americans spent $1.2 billion on beer in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, $568 million on distilled spirits and $652 million on wine.
Caldwell-Wilson said she was struck from behind while returning from buying groceries. Corroborating parts of her version of events, Simpson was captured on body camera removing cloth grocery bags from Caldwell-Wilsons vehicle and storing them in his police cruiser.
The second driver, Mighty Chadrick, told cops that Caldwell-Wilson was in the left lane, stopped at the traffic light, at the intersection of Route 129 and Hamilton Avenue, according to the body camera and Simpsons accident investigation report.
The councilwoman appeared to be turning left when she suddenly swerved in to the middle lane, Chadrick said. He tried avoiding her but rear-ended the vehicle.
One of two passengers in Chadrick's vehicle complained of chest pain. He was checked out on scene by a firefighter who recommended the passenger get screened at the hospital to ensure no internal bleeding, the footage shows.
Meanwhile, Caldwell-Wilson suffered a large gash on the back of her head and was temporarily knocked unconscious from the collision. She came to when Cariola opened her driver-side door.
Cariola radioed for an ambulance and asked Caldwell-Wilson how she was doing.
The officer did not know at that point about the flask and didnt ask Caldwell-Wilson whether she consumed alcohol, the footage shows. At no point did he say whether she showed signs of being under the influence.
He asked the disoriented Caldwell-Wilson if she knew her name.
Marge Caldwell-Wilson, councilwoman, she responded.
Then he asked the councilwoman if she knew the date and the year but she couldnt respond.
Its OK, honey. Its all right, the officer said. You were in a car accident. Its OK. Are you in pain anywhere? Just the back of your head? Dont touch it. We have an ambulance on the way for you. Just dont move.
First responders arrived and tended to the councilwoman. She was eventually hauled off on a stretcher and taken to Capital Health Regional Medical Center for treatment.
Simpson found the flask after Caldwell-Wilson was carted away.
Screengrab of bodycam footage shows Trenton police finding a flask inside the car of Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson after she was involved in a car crash.
Legal experts said Simpsons warrantless search of the glove box which it could be construed as a Fourth Amendment violation of unreasonable search and seizure was lawful under the community caretaking doctrine.
Officers dont always function as law enforcement investigating crimes and can act as community caretakers to aid those who are ill and distressed in emergency situations.
In this case, the officer was acting in that role by securing Caldwell-Wilsons purse and groceries, and then scouring the glove box for more valuables, along with her driving documents.
If theyre in a lawful place, and they make an observation of something thats criminal, its also a plain-view doctrine case, Bianchi said.
Following Simpsons investigation, Caldwell-Wilson was ticketed for careless driving and failing to maintain a lane.
Under state law, she could have been cited for having an open container, legal experts said, since a flask can be used to store alcohol. The law says someone shall be presumed to have consumed an alcoholic beverage in violation of this section if an unsealed container of an alcoholic beverage is located in the vehicle.
Caldwell-Wilson said officers didn't ask her about the flask at the hospital.
With her memory still foggy, she told officers she did not remember what happened before the crash, according to the accident report.
Blakeley wondered why cops didnt press.
I dont have to tell anybody if someone found a flask in councilman Blakeleys vehicle, I would be raked over the coals, he said.
He felt the police should have requested a blood draw that could have detected whether alcohol was present in Caldwell-Wilson's system.
Bianchi said officers would have faced challenges obtaining a warrant for the blood draw.
While she may have been driving erratically and the flask was found in her car, he surmised those factors alone wouldn't have been enough to convince a judge to issue a warrant for the blood alcohol test.
A judge would have also wanted to know whether officers observed signs of impairment.
As a prosecutor, I would want more, Bianchi said. An open container in a vehicle, assuming its alcohol, may or may not have been ingested during the incident. Usually cops are making notations: Do they smell an odor of alcohol on her breath? Were her eyes bloodshot? Was she slurring her words?
To me, I would say thats a pretty close call that you would not get a blood draw on something like that unless you can establish more based upon observations from the officers that she was under the influence. If you had that, plus the flask in the vehicle, assuming its alcohol and its partially been consumed, then I think you would be on your way to that.
That was not the case here, as Cariola didnt ask those crucial questions, according to the body cam, before the councilwoman was transported to the hospital.
Despite the discovery of the flask, officers did not appear to challenge Caldwell-Wilson when they followed up with her at the hospital, in order to try to establish probable cause for the warrant, the records show.
Officers accepted Caldwell-Wilson at her word that she does not remember what occurred, and left it at that once they were couldn't obtain clear footage of the crash.
Now that theres an insinuation she may have been under the influence, Caldwell-Wilson said she wished cops did more adding she would have consented to a blood draw.
The councilwoman planned to contact the hospital where she was treated to see if records exist that could show whether she was tested for alcohol and drugs during her stay.
Those records are normally protected by patient confidentiality laws, but Caldwell-Wilson said she was willing to provide them to The Trentonian. She had not yet produced those records by the publication of this story.
She also fought back against a perception that she may have a drinking issue, claiming the accident is being overblown by a political enemy.
I dont think Ive ever been drunk in my life, she said. Im not a big drinker. Im so sick of this crap. If this is councilman Blakeley doing this, then we have serious problems and a serious lawsuit here. This is defamation of character.
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